New research centre aims to tackle UK’s ongoing premature birth crisis

New born baby
Reporter 230 - Babies born to mothers with HIV might be more vulnerable to infection. Credit: Dr Christine Jones (Medicine)


Pregnancy charity Tommy’s has launched a dedicated research centre to reduce the number of babies born prematurely in the UK, amid concerns that progress has stalled and inequalities are growing. The new Tommy’s National Centre for Preterm Birth Research will bring together researchers from five leading institutions, Imperial College London, University College London, King’s College London, Queen Mary University of London and the University of Leeds.

The Centre will be led by Professor Catherine Williamson, Professor of Women’s Health at Imperial’s Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction and a member of the NIHR Imperial BRC Pregnancy and Prematurity Theme.

Premature birth is the most common cause of death in children under 5 in the UK, where every year an estimated 53,000 babies are born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. It can have life-changing consequences, leaving children at higher risk of long-term complications including learning disabilities, hearing problems and visual impairment. Many parents whose babies are born prematurely report ongoing feelings of anxiety, depression and guilt.

People from Black and Asian backgrounds and those living in the most deprived areas of the UK are more likely to experience premature birth than those from White backgrounds and those living in the least deprived areas.

The new centre’s teams will collaborate on a wide range of research projects investigating the causes and prevention of premature birth and the factors that increase risks for minoritised ethnic communities, as well as looking at the best ways to support parents of premature babies.

Driving progress by bringing together experts

Kath Abrahams, Chief Executive of Tommy’s, said: “At the moment, 6 babies are born prematurely every hour in the UK. That’s 1 in every 13. Too many lives are being lost and too many families are devastated by premature birth, which happens without warning in the vast majority of cases.

“Alarmingly, the UK is not on track to meet the Government’s target of reducing premature birth from 8% to 6% by 2025. We’ve established the Tommy’s National Centre for Preterm Birth Research to drive progress by bringing together experts who can advance our understanding of preterm birth and deliver new treatments to predict and prevent it. We’re determined to save and improve thousands of lives.”

The most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in 2021, the proportion of premature births in the UK was 7.6% overall – higher than the average across Europe and up from 7.4% in 2020, after three years of falling rates.

Among people from Black backgrounds, 8.7% of live births were premature, with the highest rate of 10.2% among those of Black Caribbean heritage. And, between 2020 and 2021, the biggest percentage increase in preterm live births was among people of Asian heritage, from 7.5% to 8.1%.

Professor Williamson said: “Too many babies are born prematurely in the UK and globally. This new centre will enable us to bring together the leading researchers in this field, to better understand the causes of this complex problem and to find effective answers through science. We’ll also be working closely with families to understand their priorities for research and care, as well as with policymakers right from the start to ensure our findings have maximal impact.”

More than 20 research projects are currently planned as part of the centre’s work. They will investigate issues including:

  • The causes of cervical shortening, which increase the risk of premature birth. Although a cervical stitch or progesterone treatment can help, they are not always effective.
  • Understanding the mechanisms that cause labour to start, and how these might be going wrong in premature birth.
  • The involvement of parents in decision-making about the care of extremely premature babies, understanding the best approach to communication so that parents are supported to be part of their babies’ care.